By Mike Monahan

At last the first football game on the new turf at Mattoon’s Gaines Field. The season-opener is a non-conference game against Troy Triad, a team they have faced the last 10 years.

Triad won last year’s game 26-13 in what was also the season-opener. 

Friday at 7 p.m. is game time and will mark the first of many for first year coach Jarad Kimbro, who has been an assistant at MHS for 18 years. 

“We have got a lot of backers in the community,” said Kimbro, a former offensive tackle for Eastern Illinois where he graduated from in 2003. “The annual Gatorade kickoff brought a lot of people to the field so they could check it out along with the intrasquad scrimmage. I am super excited to break in the field. The players have done everything we have asked of them and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of kids.”

The last time Mattoon beat Triad, a school of 1,157 that competes in the Mississippi Valley Conference, was 2018 in a 28-23 home win, which was the last time the Green Wave hosted the Knights. 

Mattoon and Triad have played every year since 2012 minus the COVID-19 spring season of 2021 and the Knights lead the series 9-2. 

“Their coach has been there a long time and they run the option – and run it very well,” said Kimbro, a Mattoon graduate. “They will be a well-coached physical team that showed up on Friday night.”

Triad went 8-3 last year, reaching the Class 5A playoffs where they won their first round game 20-19 over Hillcrest before being eliminated by Mahomet-Seymour, 49-14. 

“We evaluated film from last year, but they have run the same things for many years and we don’t expect them to change with no real turnover in coaching, Kimbro said. “I am sure there will be a few wrinkles. They run a 4-3 defense and that is what we have been preparing for all week.”

Paul Bassler is in his 25th season with a 145-95 (.604) record, including 16 playoff appearances (in 24 seasons with the COVID-19 season not a full year).

For Triad quarterback Nick Funk, who threw for 576 yards last season, returns, while the Knights had three running backs with between 504 and 692 yards last year.  Randall is back. He had 83 carries for 592 yards and four touchdowns. Ryan Hazelwood, a 5-8, 174-pound senior, is back as well. He had 504 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. 

The defense averaged one fumble recovery and two quarterback sacks per game. The top defensive returning players are Jaylun Nelson, a 6-0, 335 defensive lineman and Koen Rodebush, a defensive back. Rodebush and Nelson averaged 5.2 and 4.5 tackles per contest. 

The turf includes a concussion pad under it for players safety, Kimbro said. “The biggest thing is we don’t have to worry about rain or mud. Triad has turf also and so they are used to playing on it. I think it is softer when it has not rained. 

Mattoon’s Taeriek Grace is back at running back after leading Mattoon, a team that finished 3-6 overall and 3-3 in the conference, good for fourth place with Lincoln. Grace had 113 carries for 569 yards and three touchdowns.  Sophomore Deaiden Arnold and classmate Cale Kimbro also expect to carry the ball a majority of the time. 

At quarterback will be a noticeable change as Jackson Spurgeon, who was 105-198-7-1, 536, 10 TDs, graduated. 

Replacing him is Slater Trier, who was the No. 3 receiver last year with 19 catches for 287 yards. He is a 6-0, 140 pound junior. 

All new receivers in Owen Hawkins, Wilson Spraker and Logan Blakburn will be among Trier’s targets. 

The strength of Mattoon is the line play. 

“The kids have done a great job,” said Kimbro. “We are deeper and probably as athletic or more athletic than we have been in many years at Mattoon. We will run the ball and set the tone with our physicality and be strong and quick and hopefully the game will turn out in our favor.”

Special teams has been a big emphasis. 

“It is a facet of the game we don’t want to give them an advantage in,” said Kimbro. 

As for being home, Kimbro said: “They are going to bring their best. At times we have got to deal with adversity and how to answer that bell. Having the place packed and our fans hooting and hollering is a huge advantage and gets our kids more adrenaline not that they will need that. A huge home crowd is fantastic and I think that is what we will try and do the entire season. We want Mattoon football back on track and the community is back as far as they want to be in it and will be helping us succeed.”

Last year, Mattoon averaged 16.4 points per game, while allowing 27.4 compared to Triad, who scored an average of 28.2 points and allowed 21.1 per contest. 

“The biggest thing is to play our game,” said Kimbro. “We want to make sure and minimize our mistakes and make sure we make fewer mistakes than Triad. That is what we are looking to do.”